In the first half of the twentieth century, when Texas was a Baptist bastion, Fort Worth’s First Baptist Church was a fortress of fundamentalism, and its pastor, J. Frank Norris, was the most prominent man of God in the South.
J. Frank Norris was part preacher, part showman; his church was part sanctuary, part circus tent.
Example 1: Jerry Flemmons wrote in Amon: The Texan Who Played Cowboy for America that Norris once had a washtub of rattlesnakes brought into the church auditorium.
Example 2: Norris was P. T. Barnum with a Bible. And sometimes with bottles. In March 1919 when Norris preached against alcohol in the Chamber of Commerce auditorium, he brought fifty bottles of moonshine whiskey into the auditorium and smashed them.
Example 3: And sometimes Norris was P. T. Barnum with babies. In April 1919 after a grand jury investigation failed to substantiate Norris’s claims of local bootlegging, he promised to “give the official proof” on the same day his church held Cradle Roll Day and presented as many as possible of the church’s thirteen hundred enrolled babies, who would sing “a special anthem.”
Example 4: And in 1922 when Norris preached against the theory of evolution, he had a delegation of monkeys “in full dress” (“hair, legs, tail and all”) imported from the zoo. Clip is from the Star-Telegram.
Example 5: On another occasion, when Norris baptized a former rodeo cowboy, Norris had the cowboy’s horse brought into the church auditorium to bear witness.
Like most churches of the time, First Baptist did not have a permanent home in the beginning. The congregation met in the homes of members or in rented spaces.
But after the courthouse burned in 1876, the congregation moved back to the Masonic lodge but began building its own home on Jennings Street at West 10th Street on land donated by Hyde Jennings.
And lo, the cattle did low: In the beginning the congregation in its new home had to endure dust and noise created by cattle drives moving north on Jennings Street along the Chisholm Trail.
The church appears on the 1885 map. On the 1886 map First Baptist Church was labeled A on its roof.
In 1888 the church sold its building on Jennings Street to the school district.
In 1888 the church began construction of a new home at Taylor and West 3rd streets. On September 22, 1889 the congregation moved into a beautiful English gothic building made of Granbury limestone. Clips are from the September 23 Fort Worth Gazette.
And now the man. John Franklyn Norris was born in Alabama in 1877, but by 1880 his family was living in Pike County, Arkansas. Father James Warner Norris, an alcoholic, was a farmer.
The family moved to a farm near Hubbard in Hill County in 1881. In 1897 J. Frank at age twenty became pastor of Mount Antioch Baptist Church in Mount Calm. The next year he enrolled at Baylor University, graduating in 1903.
In 1905 Norris became pastor of McKinney Avenue Baptist Church in Dallas.
And in 1907 he was elected president of the company that published the Baptist Standard.
Norris ascended to the pulpit of Fort Worth’s First Baptist Church in 1909. Clip is from the October 9 Star-Telegram.
First Baptist Church was located at 3rd and Taylor streets in the middle of downtown, and J. Frank Norris was soon in the middle of everything: the middle of controversy, the middle of court cases, the middle of headlines, pulpits, microphones, other people’s faces. For example, he took on the vice district Hell’s Half Acre—criticizing those who ran its bars and brothels, those who frequented them, those in city government who allowed such businesses to flourish.
During one of the city’s occasional campaigns to clean up the Acre, Norris spoke to a men-only meeting (as he often did) and ticked off Fort Worth’s transgressions. Clip is from the February 13, 1911 Star-Telegram.
In his sermons Norris was not afraid to name names—big names. He named names of those who profited from the wages of sin spent in the Acre. When Winfield Scott, Fort Worth’s biggest taxpayer, died in 1911, while others eulogized the dead millionaire, Norris criticized Scott for owning property in the Acre and for supporting liquor and gambling.
A man who names big names makes big enemies. The following chronology is not typical of a church and its pastor:
January 11, 1912: Fire breaks out in First Baptist Church.
January 14, 1912: As Norris sits in his study at the church, someone fires two shots through the stained glass windows.
February 4, 1912: Fire again breaks out in First Baptist Church. The church building is destroyed. Five blocks away fire also breaks out at Norris’s parsonage. Clip is from the February 4 Star-Telegram.
February 5, 1912: Norris says he has received threatening notes.
February 27: Norris and a First Baptist deacon are attacked while walking downtown about 10 p.m. The assailant escapes.
March 1, 1912: Norris is indicted for perjury after a grand jury hears testimony from handwriting experts that indicates that Norris himself might have written the threatening notes.
March 2, 1912: Another fire breaks out in the Norris parsonage.
March 3, 1912: Norris receives another threatening note.
March 28, 1912: Norris is indicted for arson.
In April 1912, as a Senate investigating committee held hearings into the sinking of the Titanic, women in the Norris courtroom sang “Old Time Religion” after the jury announced his acquittal on the charge of perjury.
And after a much-delayed trial in 1914 Norris was acquitted of arson. The congregation of First Baptist Church had rebuilt its burned building in 1913. In fact, the new building was finished before Norris’s trials were finished. Norris conducted services in the Byers Opera House while the new church building was being built. Clip is from the January 24, 1914 Star-Telegram.
Photo from Fort Worth, “The Convention City,” 1921, Amon Carter Museum.
The First Baptist complex would eventually cover a city block and feature a sanctuary that could accommodate five thousand worshippers.
From the 1920 city directory.
Norris was polemical. He condemned Catholicism and, the Handbook of Texas says, “openly supported the Ku Klux Klan.”
In 1924, after the lodge hall of the Fort Worth Klan was destroyed by a fire of suspicious nature, Norris invited the Klan to use the auditorium of First Baptist Church to present its minstrel show.
During services on the Sunday before Valentine’s Day in 1922, two men dressed as Klansmen presented Norris with a bouquet of roses. Clip is from the February 13, 1922 Star-Telegram.
Norris opposed showing movies on Sunday and gambling on horses. He considered the Southern Baptist Convention and his alma mater, Baylor University, to be too worldly.
Norris’s church often presented public programs. Appearing in 1924 were John Philip Sousa and the other J. Frank in Fort Worth history (Norfleet).
J. Frank Norris was indefatigable. He helped persuade Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary to move from Waco to Fort Worth in 1910. He published the Searchlight newspaper. In 1925 he began the first regular radio ministry in the United States. His church grew to have the largest Protestant congregation in the nation. Its Sunday School enrollment was the largest.
J. Frank Norris had built America’s first megachurch.
Not content with that, in 1935 Norris became co-pastor of a second church, Temple Baptist Church in Detroit. For sixteen years Norris commuted twelve hundred miles between the two churches. By 1946 the combined membership of the two congregations was twenty-six thousand souls.
In 1941 Norris addressed the Texas Legislature—after leading the lawmakers in singing “Amazing Grace.” (Photo from Austin History Center, Austin Public Library.)
This ad proclaiming the “largest church membership in the world under one pastorate” ran in the Star-Telegram in 1949.
First Baptist Church also had the largest auditorium in town. Among notables who spoke from its podium were populist politician William Jennings Bryan (whom Norris emulated), former President William Howard Taft, Colonel Billy Mitchell, and humorist Will Rogers.
In 1924 Bryan spoke at the church on the threat of Darwinism. The next year Bryan would “co-star” with Clarence Darrow in the Scopes monkey trial.
With the death of Bryan in 1925, Norris was the apparent heir to the title of America’s leading fundamentalist.
But in 1926 Norris preached a sermon against Fort Worth Mayor H. C. Meacham, accusing the mayor of misappropriating city funds for Catholic causes. Norris drafted a small army of boys to surround Meacham’s downtown department store and hand out to shoppers copies of the Searchlight containing the text of the anti-Meacham sermon. Finally, on the afternoon of July 17, 1926 lumberman Dexter Elliott Chipps, a friend of Meacham, walked from his rooms at the Westbrook Hotel to First Baptist Church. He confronted Norris in the preacher’s office. A picture of William Jennings Bryan hung on the wall. Chipps was, some later said, a drunkard and a bully. Chipps told Norris to stop bedeviling Meacham. Norris would later say that Chipps threatened to kill him. Norris drew a pistol from a desk drawer and shot Chipps dead. Chipps was unarmed.
The story grabbed headlines around the country. “Texas Minister Kills Man in Church,” the New York Times page 1 headline read.
Dexter Elliott Chipps was buried in Greenwood Cemetery.
The grand dragon of the Ku Klux Klan in Texas, who said he had known Norris seventeen years, met with Norris after the shooting. Clip is from the July 23, 1926 Dallas Morning News.
Norris was indicted for murder. His trial in Austin in 1927 drew the largest assemblage of state and national reporters in Texas history to that date. Norris testified that when Chipps confronted him that day in 1926, Chipps made a move to his hip pocket and that Norris, fearing for his life, shot Chipps.
On January 25, 1927 a jury acquitted J. Frank Norris of Chipps’s murder on grounds of self-defense. Clip is from the Dallas Morning News.
But that acquittal did not end the headlines for Norris and First Baptist Church.
Fast-forward one year. On January 1, 1928 Norris’s house burned while he was at the church teaching Sunday school. Clip is from the Dallas Morning News.
Fast-forward two years. On January 12, 1929 fire again destroyed First Baptist Church.
Fire Marshal Claude Ligon said he thought the fire had begun at or near the sanctuary’s pulpit. At the time of the fire, J. Frank Norris was two hundred miles out of town.
Today a bank and a parking garage occupy the site of the fire-plagued church.
J. Frank Norris died on August 20, 1952 at a camp meeting in Florida.
Photos on page 2 show Norris with, among others, Billy Sunday, Texas Governor James V. Allred, and William Jennings Bryan.
John Franklyn Norris, the man who inhaled limelight and exhaled brimstone, is buried in Greenwood Cemetery, tucked way off in a quiet corner by himself, a location with which he was most unfamiliar during his forty-three years in the pulpit of First Baptist Church.
Bonus trivia: John Birch in 1940 was the first graduate of Norris’s Baptist Bible Seminary, which was part of the church at that time. The seminary later moved to where the Top O’ Hill Terrace gambling casino had once stood and became Arlington Baptist College. (Portrait from Wikipedia.)
In August 1945 Birch, a missionary and military intelligence officer, was killed in China by communist forces. In November of that year Major General Claire Chennault of Flying Tigers fame spoke at the dedication of John Birch Memorial Hall at the church.
In 1958 an anticommunist society formed in Indiana. To honor John Birch as the first casualty of the Cold War, the society took his name. (General Jimmy Doolittle, who had met Birch after Doolittle bailed out over China after the 1942 raid on Tokyo, later wrote that he was sure that Birch “would not have approved” of the use of his name in that way.)
The other J. Frank in Fort Worth history: Norfleet: The Sucker, the Sting, the Sweet Revenge